In a town on the coast of Japan, a ship is beached on dry land after a massive tsunami on March 11, 2011. Credit Laura Sheahen/Caritas

By Laura Sheahen in Kamaishi

When you’re in a tsunami-hit zone, there are no ground floors. At my six-story hotel in Kamaishi, a town on the east coast of Japan, signs point the way to a staircase surrounded by what I assume are “under construction” signs. From the top of the stairs, the third stories of nearby buildings look OK. But at street level, the buildings are just broken frames. Shattered glass, jumbled furniture, and mud-stained scraps of cloth stretch as far as I can see.

Thanks to Japanese engineering, many buildings on the coast withstood the earthquake that struck on March 11, 2011. Even with the ground floor gutted, Japanese engineering is holding up my hotel. But nothing could keep the tsunami water from crashing in.

Cruel geographical accidents determined what the wave destroyed and what was saved. I walk three blocks on flat land, peering into ruined shops and homes. Then, taking about twenty steps, I walk up the slightest of hills to a parish complex that’s now the base for Caritas Japan’s relief efforts here. I wonder where Caritas would be staying if not for that incline.

“The people who live right near the ocean, they knew to act when they heard the tsunami warning,” says a woman visiting with Caritas volunteers at the church. “But people who live more inland couldn’t believe the water would come this far.”

Sitting with four other women in the parish hall–now open as a free Caritas café–she describes how she escaped the wave. Most town residents took their cars first, but when traffic jams made it impossible to move, they got out and started to run. Kamaishi is surrounded by low mountains, and many people headed for a temple at the top of a hill. From there, they watched as vehicles, boats and whole buildings were swept in and then out by the tide. “I couldn’t believe how strong the wave was when it pulled back,” says one woman. “I saw a huge, one-ton ship pushed in, and then dragged back much more quickly. The tsunami destroyed more going out than it did coming in.”

Some of the immense ships never went back to sea. They sit on dry land with green grass sprouting around them. Cranes and earthmoving machines heap debris in enormous piles. Volunteers, including ones from Caritas, sort through the ground rubble.

Six months after the tsunami, most people would like to start rebuilding somewhere. But certain low-lying areas are now restricted until the local government develops its city plans. Land on higher ground is at a premium and the government must use part of it for temporary, prefabricated housing.

“Goodbye baseball,” murmurs Reinhard Wuerkner of Caritas Germany, who is part of a Caritas group visiting the tsunami zone. On a former baseball field, the government has constructed a sophisticated trailer park to house the survivors. Thousands of people along the coast are now living in such trailer parks after their number came up in the housing lottery.

For those who lived in shelters like school gyms for months, the trailers offer much more privacy. They’re small, but very well-equipped, down to the air conditioning, recycling bins, and mail slot. Still, they are a far cry from home.

For now, the trailer parks have one indisputable advantage: their altitude. They’re far from the sea and high up. “I don’t want to live where we lived,” says another woman at the Caritas centre. “The water still comes close to it, especially in the evening.” For those who lived near a shoreline now permanently eaten away in spots, for those who were saved because they were close enough to a hill, height is what matters.